BURLINGTON — As the adage tells it, defense wins championships.
In Saturday’s Division I final at the University of Vermont, the Middlebury Union High School field hockey team provided more evidence of its truth.
Not only did No. 3 MUHS blank a top-seeded South Burlington team seeking its fifth title in seven years and averaging 3.6 goals per game this fall, but junior sweeper Tiffany Danyow also scored the game’s only goal in the Tigers’ 1-0 win.
The 13-3-1 Tigers played the 14-3 Rebels on even terms for most of the game, but South Burlington turned up the heat in the final 15 minutes trying to rally and earned seven unanswered penalty corners.
But the Tiger defense of Danyow in the middle, senior Eva Pratt on the right and sophomore Olivia Carpenter on the left — with plenty of help from the midfield of seniors Brandi Whittemore and Maria Ploof and freshman Sophia Peluso — held the fort in front of senior goalie Heather Ploof (six saves).
Ploof said she had faith in the back line, especially Danyow, the flyer on opponents’ corners, and Whittemore, the second defender out.
“I knew they had it. They were fast. They flew out,” Ploof said. “They (the Rebels) played a great game, too. But we were on top, and the corners didn’t stop us.”
Danyow pointed out MUHS had denied all but one of Rutland’s many corners in the Tigers’ semifinal win — she recalled the defenders told themselves when the high-powered Rebels were desperately battling to knot the score.
“We can do it. We’re fast. We have everyone we need. We’ve done it before,” Danyow said. “The last game we had like 18 corners and they scored on the 17th one, so we could hold them.”
Coach Kelley Higgins — whose Tigers had never beaten the Rebels in her six-year tenure until they knocked them off this season at MUHS, 2-1, to avenge an opening-game, 8-0 loss on Rebel turf —praised her defense.
“They had some opportunities to tie that score, and I’m really proud of our D for hanging tough and not panicking,” she said.
Probably critically, the Tigers did not let the Rebels get off to a fast start and build the kind of momentum they developed in their one-sided win back in September. MUHS earned a penalty corner in the game’s second minute, and Rebel goalie Julia Hudson (two saves) made a stop on a Danyow drive, triggering a wild scramble and another shot that trickled just wide.
The Rebels gained a little traction at midfield as the half went on, and Ploof made a stop on a Morgan Bresnahan deflection in the 10th minute. With 16 minutes gone, the Rebels earned their only corner of the half, and midfielder Taylor Leggett managed to launch three shots from the circle, all of which Ploof kicked away.
At that point, Rebel middies Molly Higgins, Anne-Marie Farmer and Lizzy Saward were moving the ball more effectively and breaking up Tiger passes, and Coach Higgins called for time to settle the Tigers at 12:26.
Then the Tigers began to control play, with Whittemore, Ploof and Peluso springing senior Tiger forwards Chrissy Ritter, Hannah Quinn and Kayla Weiss for more dangerous runs. A Ploof move created a Tiger corner, a Whittemore steal set up a Ritter bid, sophomore forward Kate Knowles couldn’t quite tip home a Danyow drive, and Whittemore fired just wide on a corner in the final minute.
The momentum carried over to the second half, and the Tigers earned a corner with a minute gone. Ritter sent the ball to Danyow at the top of the circle, and Danyow drove hard at goal. The ball tipped the inside of Hudson’s left pad and rolled in at 28:40.
“It was luck, pretty much,” Danyow said. “We’ve been practicing it all season, and it didn’t work. And finally it just clicked on turf.”
Hudson flashed her pad two minutes later to deny Whittemore’s 15-foot bid, and Ploof fired just wide on a corner.
But the Rebels ratcheted up the pressure, stepping into passing lanes, picking dribblers’ pockets, and knocking down long drives.
Despite the Rebels’ work at midfield, though, the ball rarely made it to Ploof. With 12 minutes left, Bresnahan tried to go in solo, but Pratt interfered just enough to allow the ball to roll ahead, and Ploof kicked it away. With 10 minutes left, Ploof stopped a shot by Haley Worgan, and on the Rebels’ final corner Ploof batted away a long waist-high bullet from Leggett to defuse the last threat.
Ploof said the defenders were determined.
“Everyone just got really pumped up, and everyone was just saying they weren’t tired,” she said. “And we obviously wanted it more.”
Ploof also said the team’s success could be traced to the strong bond it developed this fall.
“At the beginning of the season we all had our own cliques. And then we all just became one big family,” she said. “And the way we worked together proved it today. And we just won the championship, so it says a lot about our family.”
Danyow echoed Ploof, calling the Tigers “like sisters.”
“It was definitely the best thing that I could ask for, the best team I’ve ever played a high school sport with,” she said.
Ultimately, for the Tigers to win the program’s first title since 1998, Higgins said they had to battle harder than a highly competitive Rebel team.
Higgins said all of her teams have played hard, and it was difficult to day what it was about this group that allowed them to earn a title.
“We’ve had skilled players all the years I’ve been here,” Higgins said. “If I said it was heart, it would be a disservice to the other teams. They all had heart. It was just they gelled. They believed in each other, and didn’t stop fighting until the bitter end.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.